Every so often, a new movie comes along that raises the bar with its computer graphics. These movies are sometimes eagerly awaited blockbusters; over time they are surprise hits. Whichever category they fall into, they set the stage for everything that comes after them, rewriting the book on what is considered technically impressive – or even possible.
Nothing impresses an audience more than a scene created in computer graphics that is indistinguishable from one that was filmed for real. Creating footage of this quality can take hundreds of hours of both human work and machine time – even on the fastest supercomputers available today. Today, we take a look back at a handful of the most important films using high-level visual effects produced in the last thirty years – we hope you enjoy them.
1. Terminator 2 – Judgement Day (1991)
The original Terminator movie was one of the most iconic films of the 1980s, and many people questioned how director James Cameron could ever follow up the movie when he was creating the sequel, Terminator 2 – Judgement Day. The visual effects featured in the original film were impressive, but Terminator 2 took things to a completely different level with some of the most realistic and convincing CGI ever seen on the silver screen at the time.
Terminator 2 was truly the first of a new era of Hollywood movies, an era where anything was possible if you put enough time and effort into creating high-quality visual effects. There are many films from the 1990s which tried to include computer graphics that have not stood the test of time, but Terminator 2 is not one of them. The film still looks every bit as good – and convincing – as it did in 1991, which is an amazing achievement by director James Cameron.
2. Jurassic Park (1993)
Jurassic Park was one of the most eagerly awaited blockbuster movies of all time and featured many visual effects techniques which had never been tried before. The film caused a global period of “dinosaur mania” back in 1993 and won an astonishing 8 Oscars for its visual effects. Before Jurassic Park, nobody had ever tried to create a living artificial animal from scratch in a live action movie, but Steven Spielberg proved it was possible when he created this film.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the original Jurassic Park is the fact that there are only 14 minutes of dinosaur footage in the entirety of the final footage. That is less than 10% of the movie’s 127-minute runtime, and only 6 minutes of the film were created entirely using CGI – the remaining scenes were done in the “old-fashioned” way, using models.
3. The Matrix (1999)
The script of the 1999 sci-fi blockbuster The Matrix was considered so impenetrable by critics that many assumed this movie would be a complete flop before its release. Of course, the critics were wrong- The Matrix won an Academy Award for its visual effects, and is most well known for its “bullet time” sequences which show Keanu Reeves escaping shots being fired at him in slow motion whilst the camera pans around the star.
The technique was copied countless times in the following years, but nobody ever managed to recreate the impact of The Matrix successfully. This includes the two sequels, The Matrix: Reloaded, and The Matrix: Revolutions. Since then, “bullet time” has become a common trope in almost every action movie that Hollywood creates.
4. Avatar (2009)
James Cameron shocked the wild once again with the release of 2009s Avatar, an entire movie created entirely within the computer graphics world. The level of detail shown in Avatar is beyond impressive, and the story appeals to people of all ages, leading to the movie becoming the highest-grossing film of all time. The most common way to experience Avatar was using 3D glasses, which have fallen out of fashion in the years since its release, but in 2009 the 3D experience undoubtedly added to the appeal of Cameron’s latest epic movie.
5. Interstellar (2014)
Finally, how could we produce a list like this without mentioning 2014’s Interstellar? There is still some debate about what a black hole might actually look like, but the most accurate models currently available were employed to create the visuals seen on screen in this space odyssey, which takes you through a wormhole to the other side of the galaxy as humans search for an alternative planet to call home.
The story is huge, the visual effects are huge, and the audience and critic responses were huge – despite strong competition, Interstellar won a well deserved Academy Award for visual effects and immediately reshaped the opinions of film makers about what could be achieved today using computer graphics.
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